One theory of presidential elections holds that they all essentially boil down to a series of key moments that amount to opportunities or tests for the candidates to neatly showcase who they are — or at least who they want the American people to think they are. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the nationwide wave of protests — but also violence — that have followed amount to one of the clearest such moments in recent history, let alone the 2020 contest.
Voters haven’t had to look hard for contrasts. On Monday night, Donald Trump read a short address in the Rose Garden threatening to send the military into American cities, while, on live television, heavily armed police, Secret Service, and military police officers cleared peaceful protesters gathered in front of the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets so that Trump could walk a tenth of a mile to the St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo op. The next morning, Joe Biden stood in Philadelphia’s city hall and began his first public speech in months: “‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ — George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation. They speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk.” He continued, insisting, “the moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism.”
It was the sharpest juxtaposition between the men, but just the latest. On Friday, Biden had spoken briefly from his basement studio to challenge white Americans to step up while casting George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer as part of a disgraceful continuum. “The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” he said. “We are a country with an open wound.” About an hour later, Trump emerged from the White House surrounded by white, male advisers. He was still seething after Twitter warned that he had glorified violence by tweeting, the previous night, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and referring to protestors as “THUGS.” He raged against China and the World Health Organization, then walked back inside, ignoring pleas from the assembled press to address George Floyd’s death or the subsequent protests.
For the last 14 months Biden hasn’t always been clear about whether he thinks this particular election will be oriented around these kinds of contrast moments, partly because they weren’t needed: no matter what you think of Biden, the differences between him and Trump have always been obvious. But, more to the point, Biden’s vision of the race was always that it would be a referendum on the president. No matter how often the former vice-president spoke of structural reforms or, more recently, the need to dig the country out of its current pit of despair, his constant refrain — “this is a fight for the soul of the nation” — was almost always understood to be about reclaiming society from Trump. He launched his campaign decrying Trump’s response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. And for months, whenever the national focus turned to Biden, he would usually turn his own focus to his relationship and work with the vastly more popular Barack Obama. Biden spoke of Trump as an aberration from the country’s normal.
Now the return to normalcy piece of his pitch has all but disappeared. “I wish I could say this hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him. It didn’t and it won’t. American history isn’t a fairy-tale with a guaranteed happy ending,” Biden said on Tuesday. “The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push-and-pull for more than 240 years.”
Trump’s words and actions clearly still infuriate, and worry, Biden. “When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades — in order to stage a photo op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle. More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care,” he said in Philadelphia. Later, he continued, “Donald Trump has turned our country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears. He thinks division helps him. His narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being he leads.”
But Biden no longer sees Trump’s errors and flaws as the main point. “Our country is hurting, our country is broken, and President Trump is standing there with matches, just flicking them on this tinderbox that we’re in right now. There are moments in time when his irresponsible leadership makes you chuckle, and there are moments like this where it almost makes you cry,” Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who speaks often with Biden, told me on Monday. But, she said, “I don’t even pay attention to [Trump], quite frankly. He’s a nuisance, he’s like a gnat that you just have to fan away — I cannot get distracted by him.” Biden’s role now, said Bottoms — who is sometimes mentioned as a potential running-mate — is to be the “healer-in-chief.”
So now Biden is fully embracing the politics of immediate contrast: his advisers have long believed he is at his best showcasing empathy and responsibility, and his understanding of pain. And Biden — a long time believer in the power of a message of unity from a trusted National Leader — has never shied from his belief that those are vital qualities for a president. “Right now Joe Biden is acting out the leadership that would be befitting of a president of the United States of America,” his senior adviser Symone Sanders said. “This is really a tale of two presidents, I think.”
Yet Biden’s reaction has also revealed how he sees the country in front of him. In the coming weeks, say Democrats close to him, Biden is likely to venture out into public more than he has in months, since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic — to speak about the Justice Department’s role in cracking down on entrenched police racism, to expand on his promise to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office, and to address both housing and economic opportunity policies. On Friday he told CNN’s Don Lemon that if he were president he would have already called for a DOJ civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death. On Monday, he held a live video call with the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Paul, and asked, “What reforms do you think are necessary?” He listened as Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot spoke of reimagining police training and the importance of seeing law enforcement officials condemn instances of police violence — just around the time Trump was insisting to the nation’s governors that they “dominate” their cities, warning that they would look like “jerks” without jailing protestors “for long periods of time.” On Tuesday, Biden called on Congress to act on Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ bill to outlaw police chokeholds, and to cease the transfer of military weapons to local police forces. Every police department in the country, he continued, should “undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training, and their de-escalation practices.” And he’s now expected to attend Floyd’s funeral in Houston next Tuesday.
“We’re not waiting on Donald Trump to step up. Joe Biden is doing what he feels is absolutely necessary in this moment. I can’t speak to why Donald Trump has abdicated leadership that is so sorely needed right now, but Vice President Biden is doing what he feels needs to be done,” Sanders said. “It’s not a political calculation — ‘he’s doing this, so we need to do that’ — it’s about what the people need.”
What Biden now believes they need is a break from predictable, scared politics. He will compete seriously for white suburban voters in November, but when he first spoke up last week, he rejected the approach you might expect from a constitutionally cautious politician pursuing that electoral path. He insisted on the need for justice for Floyd, but he did not explicitly warn against violence or looting, as some others did.
“There was a belief that he would cower, or bend, in an effort to soothe white voters in this country and not speak a truth, and that’s proven to be false,” said Bakari Sellers, an activist, author, and former South Carolina legislator. Sellers pointed to Biden’s recent statement to popular radio host Charlamagne Tha God that, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” for which the former VP apologized, saying he was joking. “I think most voters — especially after the conversation with Charlamagne, where he made some asinine comments — were relieved to hear that type of frank honesty and truth.”
Still, this posture hasn’t been a completely comfortable fit for everyone around Biden. After Bottoms expressed deep anguish but warned of the violence and “chaos” that “if you care about this city, then go home,” arguing that such actions aren’t “honoring a legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement,” some of Biden’s top advisors shared her address. Biden, however, only decried “needless destruction” a day later, after John Lewis urged non-violence, too. Some Democrats in his orbit bristled when the sequence was pointed out, rejecting the idea that Biden was waiting to condemn violence for some reason. Many, but not all, around Biden dismiss the liberal fear that this election will turn into a 1968 redux, with Trump playing the Richard Nixon role and riding to victory by leaning into a violent and racist “law-and-order” message. Trump’s signature divisive politics is vastly unpopular not only with black voters, they point out, but also with white suburban women. Recent polls show Americans recoiling at Trump’s handling of the events, and they show Biden’s national lead over Trump expanding. Biden’s brand of insisting on unity is vastly more attractive, his advisors are wagering. “We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us,” he said Tuesday. “We are a nation enraged, but we cannot allow our rage to consume us. We are a nation exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion to defeat us.”
On Tuesday Biden began specifically elevating parts of the policing reforms he wishes to see — beyond the criminal justice platform and “Plan for Black America” he already laid out in his campaign, but which have not been central to his pitch — and he will likely soon go further.
Sellers, who has been skeptical of Biden’s record, said the former VP’s initial words — including his Friday challenge to white Americans to imagine their black compatriots’ “constant anxiety and trauma” — have given him reason for confidence. “We were flippant in the way we analyzed the relationship of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and I have to apologize to Joe Biden. We took for granted that he was kind of dragged along. Not only was he there, but he got to see the range of emotion, and treatment, of a black man in the highest office in the land,” he said. “I am firmly convinced I can stand on truth and say the Joe Biden we see now, as a result of serving as vice president for eight years, is not the same Joe Biden who had a rocky relationship with race in the past.”
Still, Biden — the same former senator who last year reminisced about his working relationship with segregationist colleagues — has avoided mention of his own role in the building of the modern criminal justice system, with the 1994 crime bill he helped write. The coming conversation about solutions may well require him to address the law. When he met with community leaders in Wilmington on Monday morning, one youth pastor directly urged him to discuss the 26-year-old legislation with younger voters who are skeptical of his commitment to change. Former Georgia house minority leader Stacey Abrams, a potential Biden running mate, told me this week that, “if that is what young people need, then that is what they should have.”
Of course Biden runs nothing right now; he is in charge of no police officers or soldiers. And even in his capacity as a candidate, he has struggled to gain the spotlight — none of the major TV news networks carried either of his Monday events live; they ran his Tuesday morning speech, but not before some of his senior aides complained about the previous day.
Those around him hope that whatever clips of him Americans have seen are a reminder of what a leader, or at least a functioning empathetic adult, looks like. “The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is,” Biden told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Friday night, pointing out that he had held a long conversation with Floyd’s family members. “I was incredibly impressed with how, how significantly they had focused on what was at stake. I was incredibly impressed at their depth of their sense of the impact of not just their family, but the entire community,” Biden said. And he spoke to them, he said, about loss: “What I said to them was that I had just a little bit of sense, from different losses, what a black hole they felt like they’re in. They felt like they’re being sucked within this great void within their chest.” The next day was the fifth anniversary of the death of Biden’s son, Beau, from brain cancer. He gathered family at his home in Delaware for a private mass with a Catholic army chaplain.
The question Biden now faces is whether any of this is enough. He and those around him are confident that he is at least making headway toward the first goal: beating Trump. If the contrasts between the two of them have always been clear, they have never been more urgent than now — not when Democrats were convinced this election was going to be all about Trump’s divisiveness, not when they thought it would be about his impeachment, and not even when they thought it would be about his handling of the pandemic that has killed 100 thousand Americans and put 40 million more out of work.
As Biden has sat at home he has, in recent months, been talking frequently with his former boss, looking for guidance on how to navigate his unique political circumstances. Obama, for one, has been unambiguous in his view that winning the election is just a piece of the overall struggle, and Biden on Tuesday agreed. “The bottom line is this,” the former president wrote in a Medium post on Monday. “If we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
Trump’s photo op came just a few hours after Obama posted his essay. Posing in front of the church — which had caught fire in the previous night’s protests — Trump uncomfortably held up a bible and stood with another all-white group of aides while reporters coughed on lingering tear gas. That evening on Twitter, a picture of Biden began circulating. He had spent time in church in Wilmington that morning, and had prayed and listened as local black clergy and community members spoke about pain and reform. The image was of Biden taking a knee as the all-black, all-masked group stood behind him.